DJ Sun
Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Bandcamp

DJ Sun Discusses His Immigrant Roots and ‘Loveletter’ to Music

DJ Sun discusses how he started DJing, his process for making albums, sampling 1970s porn records, and recording an LP about discovering his Chinese heritage.

DJ Sun
Soular Productions
4 November 2022

Andre J. E. Sam-Sin, the Houston-based DJ and producer known professionally as DJ Sun, got a late start in music. He began DJing in his mid-20s before producing his own music under the DJ Sun moniker. One Hundred, his first full length album, came out in January of 2013. The album comprised a dozen tracks of tastefully filtered breakbeats and funk samples melded into mellow instrumentals with an understated detail to tone color.

Sam-Sin’s latest album, Loveletter, maintains this same sonic blueprint while opting for warmer tones and a more sedative aural experience. Coming off the record’s release, Sam-Sin talked to PopMatters about how he got his start DJing, his process for making albums, sampling 1970s porn records, and recording an album about discovering his Chinese heritage.

“I’m an immigrant,” Sam-Sin says. “I was born in the Netherlands and [later] lived in Suriname. I spent, like, seven years in the Netherlands, seven years in Suriname. If you look at the opportunity structure, or just kind of the way life is in Suriname, there’s not a whole lot of opportunity to go into the arts. Your parents don’t necessarily encourage that. Unless you have some sort of legacy within the family and you’ve got a name established, or you are just one of those trailblazing artists, there’s just not much opportunity there.

“When I noticed that we were coming to the US, I was 14. I started looking into the ability to be able to get into music, and I noticed that there was plenty of opportunity in the US. But my parents, I couldn’t get a paradigm shift from them, and rightfully so. It was about getting an education, and then gaining independence once you get your education. To them, the best way that was going to happen was through a formal degree.

“I preface the next thing with that background because it took me until my twenties when I was able to start getting into music. I didn’t have any sort of instrument training. It’s something my parents actually discouraged when I came to the US. I really wanted to learn a couple of instruments and learn music, but it wasn’t going to happen.”

Sam-Sin’s way into music was through the turntable. By 1992, at age 26, he was crafting mixtapes as a bedroom DJ. However, he claims his DJ career started in earnest later that year when a friend invited him to play a party at Galveston Beach. “Because I was born in the Netherlands, he promoted me as this hot DJ from Amsterdam,” he says. “And I’m not from Amsterdam. I’m actually from Rotterdam. That’s a competing city, if anything. People from Amsterdam don’t claim Rotterdam and vice versa.”

The Galveston party led to all kids of gigs, and it wasn’t long until Sam-Sin had his own monthly party in Houston. “I’d been influenced by many trips to New York and what I saw at a party called Frankie Jackson’s Soul Kitchen one Tuesday night at Nell’s,” he says.

“I did a party called Soul Cooking that was completely based on Soul Kitchen, but it was a monthly and didn’t have one specific location. We roamed around. Before raves actually existed, we were kind of roaming that party around. It was very much patterned after Soul Kitchen in that I heard them play the breaks. I heard them play hip-hop. There was a house set, and there was a reggae set. Once I got my opportunity, I wanted to do something similar to that and make it my lane but have different formats. So I would DJ the whole night. It would start with just kind of jazzy grooves, breaks, and then I’d go into hip-hop. As the night progressed I would play a house set, and then I would end with reggae. I still have a little bit of that DNA within me when I play regularly at my own bar now.

“Then I started a jazz club, and that was my first weekly club gig. I could do whatever I wanted to do. I was very much in step with what Giant Step was doing in New York, with what Giles Peterson was doing in England, and just staying within that particular lane. There were different names for it. I don’t like the tags, I just like good music, but it was basically along the lines of what was called acid jazz at the time.”

Sam-Sin’s music as DJ Sun resembles acid jazz in that it polishes the rugged sounds of seventies funk and soul with technicolor sheen. Though not a trained piano player, he layers lush keyboard harmonies into the mix, which he blends with samples using studio effects redolent of electronic music. This is music for audiophiles.

However, the tracks on Loveletter and One Hundred pack a little more boom-bap and a lot less smooth jazz than music typically labeled acid jazz. If genre tags mattered, these tracks would slot better into trip-hop, a term just as dated and nearly as oblique at describing the sounds it accommodates.

Sam-Sin began producing his own music using an MPC 2000, the weapon of choice of many a true-school hip-hop beatmaker. He has since shifted to the MPC 1000. “The way I put these things together, they’re super layered. In hip-hop production, you should keep things fairly simple and provide those eight bars or however many bars you need to provide for your guy to grab the mic and do it. I don’t use those restrictions, though, because I don’t make music for vocalists. So by the time I’m done there are so many tracks that I’ve used, so many sounds that I’ve layered, that the first part of the song doesn’t sound like the last part because there’s more stuff that gets introduced. Then I look at it, and it’s like, ‘Woah, I think I’ve maxed out all that tracks!’”

A good example of this approach is the aptly titled “Daunting” from Loveletter. The track opens with a heady sonic blitz. A few choice bars of syrupy soul music – drums and vocals and triumphant brass backing – are looped and submerged under a synth that flicks over the track like the blade of a ceiling fan. Layered between these two contrasting sounds– one muddled and bleary, the other chiseled to distinction – is a swizzle of keyboard melody bobbing in and out of phaser waves.

Each sound changes in its own distinct way. The synth flashes rhythmically, its volume rising, then dropping, then rushing back up in a gush of tone color. The keyboard bobs its way to the surface but gets dragged back down into the track’s undertow of thoroughly filtered bass blur. The soul sample comes into clarity, gradually attaining treble before bursting out from the filter fog. The horns materialize. The muffled snare sharpens to a thwack. The voice gets dusted off, revealing a human being with vocal flutter and a slippery larynx. The sample blooms into definition, a delectable sliver of soul sampled straight from crackling wax. While all this is happening, a sleigh bell shakes on beat in the foreground, the only instrument keeping to a steady sonic comportment. This is just the first thirty seconds.

The groove stays locked. The same few seconds of melody loop throughout. Broken down to its basest form, “Daunting” is a fairly repetitive downtempo hip-hop beat. The track earns its six-and-a-half-minute run time with a torrential use of studio effects, enough flangers and phasers and filters to vie with the most elaborate of Brian Eno’s mixing board experiments.

This applies to the entire album. Several songs on Loveletter are relentlessly tweaked and tinkered with. Others, like “Daunting”, are ravaged and refreshed in an ebb and flow pattern, giving it a narrative structure from which Sam-Sin builds forward momentum.

Coming up with a cohesive theme is an integral early step for Sam-Sin when he starts work on an album. For inspiration, he listens to his all-time favorite records, all of which have a solid thematic throughline.

“The way I go into a project is with the mindset of how I like to listen to records. Like with J Dilla’s Donuts or Massive Attack’s Blue Lines or People’s Instinctive Travels [and the Paths of Rhythm] by A Tribe Called Quest. There’s also DJ Shadow’s Entroducing and Portishead’s Dummy. These are all records where you put them on and you don’t stop. It just keeps going. For lack of a better description, they’re thematic. Whether the artist intended it as such, that’s just how it plays with me. Other albums, it’s just like, ‘Okay, I’m going to play this song and play that song,’ but I don’t necessarily listen all the way through. But those very specific albums are the blueprint in my mind for what I go into when I’m setting out to do a record.”

Before recording Loveletter, Sam-Sin dreamt up a bittersweet tale of thwarted love to help shape the album’s overall theme and narrative scope. The story takes place in the nineteenth century and follows two Russian pen pals in love. The lovers plan a cross-continent rendezvous to meet in New York, but for one reason or another they miss each other.

Sam-Sin has completed a more elaborate version of this backstory approach for a previous album, Qingxi. Qingxi was inspired by a trip to China, during which Sam-Sin learned about his Chinese heritage.

“I have to have a little bit of an internal backstory to [the recording process.] For example, I had completed a project after One Hundred called Qingxi about my Chinese heritage. The Asia Society Center funded a trip for me to go to China to research where my ancestor came from. My ancestor went from China to Suriname in 1858. I started doing further research and discovered that my ancestors likely came from Qingxi. Asia Society funded the trip, which allowed me to go record it visually, but also come up with the inspiration for the story about where I come from on the paternal side. It’s part West African, through slavery, but it’s also Chinese. So I recognize that and I honor that.”

 Musically, Loveletter was inspired by a trip to Red Hook, New York, where Sam-Sin attended a vinyl swap meet and was impressed by DJ sets from Rich Medina and other consummate crate diggers. “When I came back to my collection [after the trip], I looked for specific sounds. I looked to cultivate a specific feel for what I wanted Loveletter to sound like.”

He went through his collection looking for records that had “a little bit of a doo-wop sound, but not Motown-y. A little grittier”. Though he made a point of sampling grit, Sam-Sin burnished his source material to a sleek auditory gleam. These tracks might have started at the pavement, but with Loveletter they’ve been refurbished to something more akin to a chic rooftop jacuzzi.

“Aquarian Twins”, the album’s opening track, is soaked. The bass pulses beneath a puddle. The percussion is greased with a phaser film. The downbeat squishes through the track like a worn outsole on wet pavement. A Rhodes melody bristles from the left speaker, then the right, spreading warm ripples over a beat smooth as bathwater.

Things get even more decadent on the second track, “Avec Plaisir”, which translates to “With Pleasure” and incorporates samples from seventies porn records, a fact Sam-Sin relays with amusement. “It’s basically recordings of – and I don’t know if it’s staged or how real it is – but you know, it’s lovemaking sounds. They aren’t soundtracks. There are some records out there that are described as, like, ‘the erotic zone’, or something to that effect. They’re all from the seventies. What other time period exists for that?

“You do wonder, why did they make this record? In the seventies, are you on a date and go, ‘Let’s go home, I got a record?’”

The samples are used to subtle effect. Whispers prickle up from under a beefy downtempo beat with a string-mimicking keyboard in the left channel and some guitar plucking in the right. The track tingles the spine regardless of whether listeners know about its pornographic origin.

Loveletter’s last track is probably its best. “Sirens” slogs to the end of the record on a bassline as thick as crude oil. A string sample tries to cut through and end the album on a bright note, but it’s swamped by the bassline, the amplified crackle of dusty vinyl, a gnarled piano melody, and other baffling noises. The percussion doesn’t seem to be constructed from anything resembling a conventional drum set. The snare sounds like a wet towel being slapped against a windshield, or maybe the morning paper making contact with a doorstep. The track is an affecting hodgepodge of inorganic sounds combined with a deft touch. It’s a gorgeous, mutant sendoff, a slow crawl into a chemical sunset.

“The trade secret of what I do is just what I do,” Sami-Sin says. “If people try to by break it down and reverse engineer it, good luck.”